You slid out of me, cold as an eel, congealed in blood and a film of mucus. I screamed. I thought you were dead, but your aunt Aggie wiped the grey glaucoma from your eyes and mouth and assured me that you were alive, just silent. We had laid old sheets and towels on the bed to save the rose-patterned eiderdown underneath. Your hair was pasted to your scalp in mollusc clumps, so black it looked almost blue.
Outside, against an ashen sky, I heard the familiar rumble of the tractor as it scraped the barren brown earth. My grandfather would have planted the root crops – carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips – around this time. His arthritic limbs preferred the leather strap of a horse’s bridle, one slow furrow of dirt at a time, but your father chose to sit in the high driver’s cab of the rusted orange tractor, to plough the fields.
You were wrapped in a cream-coloured wool shawl, a tiny slab of flesh in my arms. I could only stare in surprise, my womb had felt as though it was filled with feathers for nine months, but the bloodied towels clumped on the floor verified your existence. I thought of this as I heard your brother shut the front door. He stomped up the stairs, cursing under his breath, the way he always did anytime he’d spoken with you on the phone.
‘Is that you, Cal?’
‘Yeah Ma,’ a pause, then his bedroom door slammed. I leaned back onto the raised pillows, the flowers on the eiderdown that covered me now were as frayed and worn as burlap sacks.
He’d told you the news. Good, now I wait.
The year you turned thirteen was the year the infestation of pollen beetles almost destroyed our crop of rapeseed. Each day, hot as a block of cinder, your father strapped the silver container to his back and, cloth over mouth, walked through the hay fields, hosing the rows and rows of flowers. The shiny black shells which clustered and fell at his feet were like tar on the ground. He would return to refill the canister, an exaggerated stretch and a sideways glance to you. He took longer to lace his boots when he saw you lingering nearby. Always the sentry, I’d lean against the doorway, swatting away flies, messy bun pinned low at my neck; watching as, from the corner of your eye, you watched him. That was the summer the ragwort weeds – which sprouted in messy clumps on the verge by the roadside – grew as wild as your hair.
Eating supper at the kitchen table, your father would crack his knuckles, and silently mop the gravy from his plate with a large wedge of bread. Cal’s animated chatter carried down to the cattle in pasture. And you and I would sit across from each other like refugees from two foreign lands. I didn’t recognise you, or the songs you listened to on the small transistor radio. You ate canned peaches in a bowl for breakfast, left a room if we were the only ones in it. You grew tall, you sulked; stubby blades of hair sprouted above your top lip.
Now, in the first light of dawn each morning, every morning, I lean over the side of my bed and vomit into the bowl that you once used for your canned peaches.
Cal said I shouted your name again last night. I can’t remember. I see your father sitting in the corner of our bedroom, distractedly clipping his toenails, wearing the same shirt he was buried in. I asked him last week when he would collect the manure from the barn, I was worried the grasshoppers would destroy our vegetable crops. They can devastate a field in hours, I told him, but I was hearing my mother’s voice. It had been my own father who’d spent a hot day in June knee-deep in dung, waxy green gloves up to his elbows, as he’d scooped the muck into a wheelbarrow, then spread it smooth and flat over the fields, like icing on a wedding cake. The stench of it had seeped like smoke into the walls of the house, and Aggie and I covered our faces with our mother’s woollen scarves, pretending to be outlaws.
The day of your thirteenth birthday was in the middle of calving season, the time for the hogs to be dipped and de-wormed. I’d prepared a lamb stew made with neck fillet, and left the cuts of meat on a chopping block. For a treat, your teacher allowed you to leave class early. As you entered the kitchen, you would have noticed the spring onions that had rolled onto the floor, the water frothing in the pot and spilling over onto the stove. You would have also noticed that the coat pegged on the rusty nail by the door wasn’t your father’s.
I sat on the edge of the bed waiting for Cal. He roughly rapped on the door.
‘Almost time, Ma.’ I nodded. I put on your father’s Wellington boots and, with my coat over my night dress, held the crook of Cal’s arm. We walked along the muddied path to the red payphone on the corner. I hadn’t tasted air for months, it felt like sulphur at the back of my throat. I closed my eyes, the dark chatter of rooks flying overhead.
I perched on a damp stone wall beside the payphone. Cal answered on the third ring. I flicked a piece of imaginary lint from my collar as he spoke to you in a hushed, curt tone. I stood on my tiptoes as he handed me the receiver. The line crackled; fragments of a voice, a harsh echo. My words were a knot of barb wire in my mouth. ‘I’m losing you,’ I said, your voice shrank to a hiss. My hand trembled. ‘I can’t hear you,’ I said. There was too much static. There was always too much static.
Julie Rea won the Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award 2017. Her fiction has been published in the literary magazine, Razur Cuts and shortlisted for The Quotidian magazine. She recently had a Flash Fiction story published for National Flash Fiction Day and is currently working on a collection of short stories.
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